“A fascinating biography, adding important insight into the African Ameri-
can experience in Wisconsin as well as the broader histories of migration,
race, and employment in the twentieth-century United States.”
lliam P. Jones, author of
The Tribe of Black Ulysses: African American Lumber
Workers in the Jim Crow South
Raised with twelve brothers in a part of the segregated South that provided no
school for African American children through the 1940s, Sylvia Bell White went
North as a teenager, dreaming of a nursing career and a freedom defined in part
by wartime rhetoric about American ideals. In Milwaukee she and her broth-
ers persevered through racial rebuffs and discrimination to find work. Barred
by both her gender and color from employment in the city’s factories, Sylvia
scrubbed floors, worked as a nurse’s aide, and took adult education courses.
When a Milwaukee police officer killed her younger brother Daniel Bell in
1958, the Bell family suspected a racial murder but could do nothing to prove
it—until twenty years later, when one of the two officers involved in the incident
unexpectedly came forward. Daniel’s siblings filed a civil rights lawsuit against
the city and ultimately won that four-year legal battle. Sylvia was the driving
force behind their quest for justice.
Telling her whole life story in these pages, Sylvia emerges as a buoyant spirit,
a sparkling narrator, and, above all, a powerful witness to racial injustice. Jody
LePage’s chapter introductions frame the narrative in a historical span that
reaches from Sylvia’s own enslaved grandparents to the nation’s first African
American president. Giving depth to that wide sweep, this oral history brings us
into the presence of an extraordinary individual. Rarely does such a voice receive
a hearing.
Sylvia Bell White
was born in Milwaukee in 1930 and raised in Louisiana.
She migrated to Milwaukee at seventeen and now lives near Milwaukee.
Jody LePage
has a PhD in history from the University of Wisconsin–Madison
and lives in Madison.
LC: 2012032691 F
272 PP. 6 X 9 18 B/W ILLUS.
E-BOOK $19.95 ISBN 978-0-299-29433-5
Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography
William L. Andrews, Series Editor
“A vivid and moving story, Sylvia
Bell White’s life tracks the roots and
routes of many working-class black
people of her generation. But she
also shows her vibrant individuality,
her refusal to be the typical or the
representative woman, her deter-
mination to be herself.”
William L.
Andrews, series editor and coeditor
The Norton Anthology of African
American Literature
O f r e l a t e d i n t e r e s t
“Rich in detail, this compelling story sheds
light on black labor struggles in the Upper
Midwest and brings to life an American civil
rights hero and pioneer of independent black
politics.”—Omar H. Ali, author of
In the Bal-
ance of Power: Independent Black Politics and
Third Party Movements in the United States
LC: 2010011577 E 278 PP. 6 × 9
E-BOOK $19.95 ISBN 978-0-299-24913-7
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